Understand the Cost, Payoff of Law School Before Getting a J.D.

Aspiring lawyers who dream of six-figure salaries in their first legal jobs should know that attending a prestigious law school increases the odds of achieving that career goal.

Some law schools have a long history of getting graduates hired by large corporate law firms that offer hefty starting salaries. Among the 183 ranked law schools that reported the private sector starting salaries of graduates in the class of 2019 to U.S. News in an annual survey, 52 schools reported a median salary at or above $100,000. The 24 schools whose 2019 grads were paid the most in full-time private sector jobs each reported a median salary of $190,000.

Prospective law school students will need to keep in mind that these salary figures are from before the coronavirus pandemic and its related economic crisis.

A recent employment and salary report from the National Association for Law Placement, known as NALP, revealed that the J.D. class of 2019 had an overall employment rate of 90.3% — the highest rate recorded since 2007, a year whose final month marked the beginning of the Great Recession.

“The good news is that employment outcomes and salary findings for members of the Class of 2019 are among the strongest ever measured and set several new highwater marks,” James G. Leipold, NALP’s executive director, explained in a press release when the report’s initial findings were released in August 2020. “The bad news is that they are not likely to be predictive of the employment outcomes for the next several classes, as the recession and other changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to provide a much more challenging job market for some years to come.”

Starting Salaries for Law School Graduates

At the majority of law schools, a typical graduate cannot expect to get a $190,000 salary offer from a private sector employer. Among the 183 ranked law schools that reported the median private sector salary for their 2019 classes, the overall median was $77,500 and the range was $50,000 to $190,000. Only 14.8% of law schools that provided this data point reported median salaries at or over $160,000.

[See: Top 40 Law Schools.]

The median starting salaries of J.D. graduates who entered the public sector in 2019 were considerably lower than those of their peers in the private sector. Among the 182 ranked law schools that reported this data, the overall median public sector salary was $57,908, with median salaries ranging from $40,000 to $70,250.

The starting salaries of 2019 law school graduates correlated strongly with the rank of the school they attended. At each of the top 15 schools in the 2022 Best Law Schools rankings, the median private sector starting salary was $190,000. Though nine lower-ranked schools also reported a median private sector salary of $190,000, no school reported a figure above $190,000.

Meanwhile, among the 10 ranked schools with the lowest private sector starting salaries, eight are ranked in the bottom one-fourth of the law schools and listed with a ranking range, and the other two ranked below the top 100. The data shows that overall, the lower ranked a law school is, the lower its graduates’ median private sector salaries tend to be.

Experts warn that this is a career path where prestige matters, meaning that alumni of top law schools often have a higher quantity and quality of job options than peers who attend lower-ranked J.D. programs. Certain high-profile positions such as Supreme Court clerkships are difficult to obtain without a J.D. from an elite law school, according to experts.

[Read: Why Big Law Firms Care About Which Law School You Attend.]

That means law school applicants who want to get a good return on investment for their legal education face a dilemma. On the one hand, they are more likely to receive significant scholarships and tuition discounts if they apply to safety law schools where their academic credentials are well above the norm. However, a law degree from these schools may result in weaker job prospects than one from more selective schools.

Furthermore, the law schools where median private sector salaries are highest often charge hefty tuition, so applicants who do not have significant financial aid may be left with a large bill and incur significantly more law school debt.

How Much Is Law School?: Law School Costs, Explained

Among the 191 ranked law schools that reported tuition and fees data to U.S. News, 108 were private and 83 were public.

The average tuition and fees at private law schools in the 2020-2021 academic year — $51,268 — was $9,125 higher than the average out-of-state tuition and fees at public law schools. The difference between average tuition and fees at private schools and average in-state tuition and fees at public schools was enormous: nearly $22,200.

However, some private law schools offer steep tuition discounts to applicants with impressive academic credentials to recruit those students.

Experts say one way for J.D. applicants to boost their chances of winning scholarship money and attending law school for free is to perform well on the LSAT, since full funding is typically reserved for students with stellar test scores. There are also other ways of wowing scholarship committees, such as by submitting an impressive resume and personal statement or earning an extraordinary undergraduate GPA.

Prospective law students who didn’t qualify for need-based financial aid during college may be surprised to learn that they may qualify for such aid in law school, experts say. Law school hopefuls can also research external scholarships for J.D. students offered by organizations besides law schools.

[SEE: 17 Ways to Get Financially Ready for Law School.]

Keep in mind the cost of law school attendance includes more than tuition and fees. Because full-time law students often forgo working in order to focus on their law school classes during the school year, they thereby forfeit whatever money they would have ordinarily earned during that time. And while in law school, they still have to pay living expenses.

Prospective J.D. students who want to work while in law school so they can earn an income should consider attending a part-time program, experts suggest.

Aspiring attorneys should minimize the amount of law school debt they accrue and avoid taking out unnecessarily large loans, experts say, warning that spending a lot of money on frivolous purchases as a law student is unwise.

When comparing law schools, future lawyers should consider the cost of each and, if admitted to multiple J.D. programs, compare their financial aid packages. Admitted J.D. students should consider negotiating with a law school whose aid package is subpar compared with what another school offered, experts suggest.

Is Law School Worth the Investment?

When assessing and comparing law schools, experts say it’s important to investigate each school’s bar passage rate, starting salaries and employment rates, and to consider those job statistics when determining if a particular school is a good bargain.

Experts add that it’s also important to consider the quirks of the legal sector — such as the emphasis on billable hours and the work-life balance challenges that these requirements cause — before pursuing a legal career. Prospective law students also need to do some introspection to figure out whether they would enjoy a job as an attorney, experts say.

Someone who wants to become a business attorney at a large corporate law firm should know that these jobs are extraordinarily hard to get, experts warn.

On the flip side, aspiring government lawyers and those working for nonprofit organizations should be mindful that starting salaries for positions in the public sector, such as policy jobs at advocacy organizations, are typically much lower than what’s offered in the private sector. This could make it challenging for those without significant scholarships to pay off their student loans. However, some law schools offer loan assistance programs for borrowers who enter the public sector.

Searching for a law school? Get our complete rankings of Best Law Schools.

More from U.S. News

What Is a J.D. Degree?

What Law School Applicants Should Know About the Many Types of Lawyers

10 Questions to Ask to Decide If You Should Be a Lawyer

Understand the Cost, Payoff of Law School Before Getting a J.D. originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 03/31/21: This article has been updated to reflect ranks and data from the 2022 U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings.

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